School & District Management

Why This Superintendent Is Taking the School Bus Driver Shortage Into His Own Hands

By Elizabeth Heubeck — October 12, 2023 5 min read
Randal Lutz, superintendent of Baldwin-Whitehall school district near Pittsburgh and a soon-to-be certified school bus driver, climbs aboard a bus prior to dismissal.
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Every day, an estimated 26 million children across the nation board buses that deliver them to school, repeating the exercise in reverse at the end of the day. To work effectively, this seemingly straightforward routine requires a highly orchestrated web of scheduling and timing and, most importantly, sufficient numbers of skilled drivers. Without all the pieces, the web becomes a tangled mess, disrupting painstakingly drawn schedules and sometimes leaving students stranded.

In districts across the nation, that threat has become a reality. In August, Kentucky’s largest district was forced to close for six days after bus service snafus led to some students getting home as late as 10 p.m. on the first day of school. A Florida district started the 2023-24 school year short on bus drivers for 78 routes. And in one Maryland district last year, disruptions to around 50 bus routes in a single day wreaked havoc throughout the school system.

This September, the 4,700-student Pittsburgh-area Baldwin-Whitehall school district experienced its own schedule disruption when a bus driver shortage forced it to cancel two consecutive days of classes after around 150 students were left without a ride to school. Although not as extreme as those facing some other districts, the disruption was unacceptable to Superintendent Randal Lutz.

Lutz is making himself, quite literally, part of the solution. He enrolled this fall in a course that will allow him to obtain a commercial driver’s license so that in future instances of shortages, he can board a school bus to pick up or drop off students himself.

Lutz talked with Education Week about his deep history with the district; the multiple forces that have fueled its current bus driver shortage; and what he’s learning firsthand about why it’s so difficult to recruit and retain school bus drivers.

The interview, presented in Lutz’s own words, has been edited for length and clarity.

Deep roots in an evolving community

I grew up here. My daughters, my wife, and I all went to school here. I’ve spent the last 27 years of my 33-year education career here as an administrator, starting as a middle school principal.

We’re a growing district just south of the city of Pittsburgh. We have about 4,700 students, and our staff is 350 strong. It’s an established community where houses are turning over as older people move out and more families with children move in. The median household income in the community has been stagnant in recent years. About 25 percent of our incoming kindergartners are not from the United States; they are mostly non-English speakers from Nepal. Our free and reduced-price lunch rate is about 50 percent, up from about 25 percent a decade ago.

Heavy users of bus transportation

A lot of our students use the school bus service—about 80 percent of K-8 students and around 40 to 50 percent of high school students. We don’t have many students who walk to school. In the 1980s, the district closed smaller neighborhood schools and went to more of a centralized school approach, so most students lived too far to walk. Most of our schools are surrounded by roads deemed hazardous; kids can’t cross many of them due to busy intersections and a lack of sidewalks.

In addition to the students in our district, we also service students who attend schools outside [the district]. Pennsylvania requires public school districts to offer bus service to all students who live within 10 miles of a district’s boundaries, as measured by the nearest public road, regardless of whether they attend public, parochial, or private schools.

At a comfortable level with a cushion, we operated about 60 to 65 vehicles. That was pre-pandemic. Now, we have 36 routes and only 25 buses servicing schools [due to the lack of bus drivers], so about a dozen buses are doing double runs in and out.

This means that all bus times are extended. Everyone’s schedules have been inconvenienced in some way. It has an indirect effect on every kid. I’ve had high school kids say to me: My boss is ready to fire me. I tell them, ‘Give your boss my phone number. I’ll tell them why you were late to your after-school job.’

Hurdles to hiring, retaining bus drivers

Bus driver employment in our district is generally set up as part-time work. For many retired community members, it has represented a second career for those who wanted to pick up a few hours in the beginning and/or the end of the day. But COVID scared a lot of folks away, especially senior citizens. They chose to retire or to do something else. We never really recovered from that.

We’ve been pretty aggressive in our recruitment strategies. There’s not a category of employee we’ve hired more of than school bus drivers. But unlike in [some] other service-oriented jobs, preparing to be a bus driver takes time. If I want to be a custodian, I could apply and be working in two or three days. If I apply today to become a bus driver, the training is paid for by the district, but again, it’s time-consuming, and the applicant will need to pay $250 to $300 in permit fees that are not reimbursable. Starting hourly wages for district bus drivers are between $23 and $30, depending on experience.

We hired 30 to 40 people between June 2023 and now who claimed to want to become a school bus driver. But only a half dozen or so finished the training. People just aren’t following through. Now, as I’m going through the training, I see why.

I have been interested in getting a commercial driver’s license for several years, as the driver-shortage problem started to accelerate. I started the training three weeks ago. I’ll complete it in eight weeks, best-case scenario.

The first wave of the training involves 14 hours, or a couple of days of classroom training. Most folks finish that. Once you finish classroom training, you have to prep for the permit tests. There are four separate tests required to acquire a commercial driver’s license with school bus permission. That really is the challenge. These tests require you to have a lot of general knowledge about commercial vehicles that has nothing to do with school buses; for instance, one question involved knowing how to tie down loads on a flatbed truck.

Absorbing the fallout

Parents’ reaction to the bus-schedule disruptions have been mixed. Some will stand at a school board meeting and scream that I should do better. My response is: What am I missing? There’s no magic potion for fixing this stuff. Then there are some parents who have said to me, ‘What can I do to help? Who can I call?’ There also are other reactions. One parent said to me, ‘I understand the situation, but my child qualifies for free breakfast, and now he doesn’t get it because he’s not at school early enough.’ My heart breaks when I hear that.

Hopefully, the greatest skill I can provide as a superintendent is keeping an eye on the big picture. I never wanted to be a bus driver. I still don’t want to be a bus driver. But my goal in getting a commercial driver’s license is to make sure kids don’t get stranded at school.

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 2023 edition of Education Week as Why This Superintendent Is Taking the Shortage of School Bus Drivers Into His Own Hands


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